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MS1 Mars simulation suit prototype is closest you can get to Mars on Earth

By Elizabeth Rayne
MS1 Mars simulation suit

Besides the questions of when we’re going to send astronauts to Mars and if humans can even handle the journey at all, if both those are yeses... what are they going to wear?

You’re looking at the prototype that will evolve into a Martian spacesuit. The MS1 Mars simulation suit — designed to simulate crewed missions to the Red Planet — is the brainchild of Michael Lye, senior critic and NASA coordinator at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). It's currently in use by the Iceland Space Agency (ISA), which tested it in a recent mission overseen by Mission Director and founding partner, Daniel Leeb. MS1 is intended to help scientists see just what humans are going to be up against on a frozen wasteland of red dust.

While it looks straight out of a sci-fi blockbuster, the MS1 suit (at least this iteration of it) isn’t pressurized like an actual space suit, because it is intended to stay on Earth.

MS1 Mars simulation suit

“The ideas we’ve then generated for this suit were loosely based on a little bit of key geometry from NASA’s Z2 prototype suit and then essentially developed from scratched by us at RISD,” Lye told SYFY WIRE. “We wanted this suit to be able to replicate [the NASA Z2] experience if possible, and have people get into the suit the same way that they’re currently anticipating might be used on Mars.”

The “geometry” Lye referred to has to do with the relationship between the visor area and the back hatch of the suit, and how a person’s body can fit into those particular parts. He chose the Z2 suit as reference because it is built for a rear entry. Z2 can be connected to a spacecraft or habitat from the outside and go through a suit lock or port; an astronaut would climb in through the back opening. While that was a fragment of inspiration, the rest of MS1 was dreamed up by Lye and his team.

MS1 Mars simulation suit

While we will really never know what is waiting for us on Mars until we actually get there, MS1 is crucial to understanding how astronauts are going to need to equip themselves. “To seriously explore the potential of long-term human habitation on either the Moon, Mars, or beyond, it is essential to start the journey by conducting field research and concept operations among the diverse set of terrestrial analogs that exist here in Iceland,” Leeb told SYFY WIRE.

The Grímsvötn volcano and the Vatnajökull ice cap of Iceland are some of the closest places you can get to alien territory on our planet. Like the almost Martian site at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, which was chosen by NASA to conduct its HI-SEAS experiment, this is one of those remote and brutal places that really tests the limits of both human and equipment endurance. Lye spoke extensively with the HI-SEAS crew while developing the MS1 suit. There were crew members who ended up needing to wear hazmat suits for exploring outside, something Lye wanted to avoid while testing MS1.

Hazmat suits may be similar to space suits when it comes to the way they shield, but Lye wanted to “design a spacesuit that could fit more people and be be more adaptable to the situation while making a higher level of fidelity to what a real spacesuit would be like for exploring, so that’s really where it started.

MS1 Mars Simulation suit

There are also the particular hazards of Mars to think about. Killer radiation, zero atmosphere, and temperatures that plunge hundreds of degrees below zero are concerns that, according to Lye, should not be terribly difficult to tackle since the suits used on the ISS have dealt with these issues successfully. The thing is, those suits are put together from parts on hand that only come in three sizes, which explains why the first all-female spacewalk had to be cancelled.

“We are looking at how that could maybe become a little bit better, and one key aspect of that is in the shoulder area,” Lye said. “The location of the bearings that the arms are attached to, which should allow free rotation of the shoulders, is actually really crucial if they’re too wide apart and in the wrong position or wrong angle. It makes it very difficult to move and very uncomfortable.”

Then there’s all that dust. Lye was careful to mention this isn’t like The Martian, where Matt Damon just goes in and out of the habitat multiple times. Putting on and taking off a spacesuit is an entire process. When you go out there into the Martian regolith, you’re going to stay out there as long as you can. The downside is that the materials of the suit will experience breakdown from long stretches of exposure to that regolith, and to harsh solar radiation.

MS1 Mars simulation suit

Lye’s team will continue modifying the MS1, not just to stand up to the sun and rock particles, but “in terms of incorporating more technology into it, which has been the goal from the beginning but hasn’t been able to be addressed yet.”

The next phase in MS1’s evolution will probably involve biometric sensors to track astronauts’ vital signs as they work in the suit, which needs to be believable for the crew testing it out — as in, they need to feel as if they’re really on Mars. Right now, there is only one MS1 prototype, but expect to see multiples soon. Upgrades will continuously be tested out in Iceland and possibly other analog studies as the future versions of MS1 get closer and closer to what astronauts will be wearing when they trek across the Red Planet.

“We’ve got to try to make a somewhat higher-fidelity version of what we’ve got here that makes it feel even more like a real spacesuit,” Lye said.

Mars, Earthlings are getting ready to take you on.